Jacyntha laughed merrily as Pan remained quite dumbfounded, hands emptied of arrows still hovering above her quiver. He knew his master was popular, and that he himself did his job well. And Pan quite disliked Fergus on a personal level—he’d been an active member of the gang that had singled Pan out, making his first years in the castle a living nightmare of hazing. He had as little to do with him as possible, but so far as Pan had seen, Fergus remained a bully. But not to women: to them, he was as perfect as any escort.
‘Why am I glad to be with you? That’s precisely it,’ Jacyntha said, smiling fondly at him. Fondly. She’d met him barely six hours ago. ‘I never know what Fergus is thinking; it was the same with the eleven other escorts I’ve had. But with you, I know—it’s all over your face. You’re so expressive, naturally so.’
I have to be, Pan thought to himself – Darien so often said the same thing. He was pleased Jacyntha was happy to have him, but at the same time familiar worry needled at his gut and worked up through his chest. He was being as communicative with her as he was with Darien and his friends? Without his notice? How could he?
Remembering Fen’s instruction to be Jacyntha’s friend relaxed him a little, but Heavens! Had any woman made such a comment while he was Beron’s pupil, Pan doubted he would have escaped the situation with his life, let alone his tongue. Since leaving his former master’s service, Pan’s flat presentation must have altered beyond recognition, all without his notice.
‘And I can tell you’re listening to me. It’s quite refreshing. With Fergus, I might as well have been talking to a statue.’
Pan smiled warmly at Jacyntha, something he’d never let himself do before a woman. But still he sighed. He was doing his job well by not doing it well. Life had certainly been less confusing as Beron’s pupil. But Pan would exchange fear and virtual servitude for confusion and kindness whenever offered the trade, with no questions and no conditions.
‘Won’t you shoot with me?’ Jacyntha asked suddenly as Pan again refilled her quiver, slightly sweaty from all his trotting up and down the range.
Pan could shoot, of course. All escorts could – Pan’s abilities neared that of the naturally gifted and exceptionally skilled. He was expected to be at a certain level in all disciplines a woman could pursue, from dance and tea-serving to archery and riding, to ensure he could assist effectively. Not only that, he was expected to be fit—between all his duties, lessons, and assignments, Pan spent up to two hours a day in physical training. It wasn’t only to look good, as escorts knew was the second most vital of their tasks, but in order to—if ever the need arose—defend the castle.
But Fen’s unusual instructions couldn’t stretch to allowing Pan to compete with Jacyntha. What if he won?
‘Oh, please,’ Jacyntha wheedled as Pan shook his head ever so slightly in decline. ‘I need someone to practice against, just a mock-contest. Them?’ she raised an eyebrow as Pan gestured left and right to the other women steadily emptying their quivers. ‘Fiesta rules: no bouts with other competitors before the tournament. In any case, they’ll try to study my tactics, learn how to best me.’
Pan knew the fiesta rules, but flouting them seemed the lesser of two evils. Flares of guilt at his selfishness assailed him, but Jacyntha wouldn’t be the one paying the price if a Master of Director spotted them shooting together, or one of the other escorts reported the incident.
Jacyntha grew stern-faced when Pan again tried to refuse, her determined face commanding his eyes. ‘As my escort, aren’t you meant to do what I want?’
Pan nodded once, guilt somewhat vanishing. That wasn’t fair of her, playing that card. Yet his liking of her seemed to multiply, again heavily reminded of cunning Claire.
‘I want you to shoot with me. Don’t you want to?’ she queried, smiling as Pan’s exasperation washed over her. ‘Of course you do. So why don’t you? It could be fun. You like fun, don’t you?’
Jacyntha laughed spiritedly at Pan’s expression.
‘All you escorts are so dull. Perhaps you should try not being so.’
Beron would never have allowed it. But Fen, Pan felt suddenly for sure, would protect him if others disapproved. More than that, Fen would want him to shoot with her.
Slowly, Pan picked up Jacyntha’s spare bow, and strung it.
‘There’s only twenty minutes before lunch,’ Jacyntha checked the massive clock painted high on the wall, hands of intricately twisted bronze steadily ticking to midday. ‘Let’s keep this nice and short—first to fifty points wins.’
Pan nodded, selecting an arrow and motioning that he’d like a practice shot. Jacyntha graciously stepped back. Lifting his bow and notching the arrow, Pan swiftly drew, aimed, and released.
The arrow whistled, thudding into the target’s dead centre.